Faculty pushed against the administration last year after GWU President Thomas J. LeBlanc unveiled sweeping plans to change the school’s demographics. In a separate incident this spring, more than 120 faculty members called for LeBlanc’s resignation following accusations of racism.
Leadership questions mounted this month after the university hired a marketing executive with ties to a sexual assault scandal involving young female athletes.
At a perilous time in higher education, when campuses are facing a public health emergency and economic crisis and are reckoning with racial injustice, faculty and staff at the largest university in the nation’s capital are losing confidence in its leadership and fear for the institution’s future. Roughly 600 employees met virtually last week to share their concerns; more than 150 signed an open letter saying they had reached a breaking point.
Erin Chapman, an associate professor in the history department and the president of the Faculty Association, said important decisions about the university’s future are being made without input from the community. The Faculty Association is a grass-roots, faculty-run organization that, unlike the Faculty Senate, has no official ties to university administration.
“We’re concerned that not only is the university contravening shared governance but, perhaps, moving to transform the university in some unclear, unstated way,” Chapman said. “We’re frustrated.”
Faculty have proposed alternative measures to deal with a $220 million budget shortfall: instituting furloughs so employees can keep their health benefits, increasing revenue by admitting more students from the university’s wait list, dipping into the school’s $1.7 billion endowment or accessing a $300 million line of credit the campus secured.
The Faculty Senate, in a resolution, said layoffs should be a last resort.
But the administration is forging ahead, LeBlanc said in a statement to The Washington Post. The majority of the university’s budget is used to pay salaries.
LeBlanc declined to say how many jobs will be slashed or how deep the pay cuts will be. Employees do not know when their salaries will change, but the Faculty Association sent a message to professors that warned of decreases between 10 and 15 percent.
Some layoffs have already occurred. A former associate on the university’s internal consulting team said she and about a dozen of her colleagues were terminated in a Zoom call — without warning.
“It’s like being left at the altar. You put all this work in, you agree, you commit,” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from GWU. “It was awful.”
Without a clear picture of the university’s plans, students and employees said they were baffled this month after LeBlanc hired a former Michigan State University official with ties to the Larry Nassar scandal as its new vice president of communications and marketing. Heather Swain was a communications official for Michigan State during the Nassar investigation, and state prosecutors found she directed a trustee to copy the university’s attorney on an email thread so that the messages could be hidden from investigators.
Nassar, the disgraced sports doctor, is serving a de facto life sentence for sexually abusing his female patients.
Days after GWU announced Swain’s appointment — and following protests from students and faculty — Swain withdrew her application. She said she understands the pushback.
“While I am confident about my record and ethics handling all crisis situations, I also understand issues surrounding sexual assault are something every institution in America must grapple with,” Swain said in an email. “I support students raising their voices about issues they care about, and I accept that the timing and fit wasn’t right for me to make a move to GW.”
Swain did not respond to additional questions.
LeBlanc initially declined to comment on the hire but, as the chorus of outrage grew, issued an apology Tuesday. He declined to say when he found out about Swain’s past at Michigan State. The university’s Board of Trustees found out about Swain’s involvement in the Nassar investigation only after LeBlanc made her the offer, said Grace Speights, the board’s chair.
The incident stoked fears among professors, who, in an open letter to the Faculty Senate, called the administration’s actions “reckless and brazen.”
“Either he did not vet the candidate with any level of rigor. . . . Or he did know about Ms. Swain’s troubling past work to impede investigation of the sexual abuse of young girls, and this did not seem to him to be disqualifying,” employees wrote about LeBlanc.
Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, a visiting assistant professor of higher education administration, called the Swain incident the “icing on the cake” for employees who have long worried about the university’s leadership.
Criticisms of LeBlanc’s administration started before the pandemic. Faculty and students scrutinized the administration’s investment in consulting services from the Disney Institute, the professional development arm of the Walt Disney Co. that was contracted to administer campus climate surveys. More backlash came last year after LeBlanc unveiled the 20/30 plan, which aims to cut enrollment by 20 percent over five years and increase the number of STEM majors — those studying science, technology, engineering or math — from 19 percent to 30 percent.
Faculty said those decisions — like the ones being made during the pandemic — were costly and made without their input.
Concerns came to a head in February when the president was approached by a student who asked whether the university would divest from fossil-fuel holdings and close a research center on campus if most students approved of doing so. LeBlanc responded: “Doesn’t matter. What if the majority of the students agreed to shoot all the Black people here? Do I say, ‘Ah, well, the majority voted’? No.”
More than 120 faculty members called for LeBlanc’s resignation two months later.
LeBlanc apologized for the remark he made in February about Black students. The university divested its endowment from the fossil-fuel industry in June.
But questions about how the university makes decisions linger, faculty say. LeBlanc, in a statement, said university leadership had been collaborating with faculty, staff and the Board of Trustees to navigate the uncertainty of the fall semester. These actions include regular meetings with the Faculty Senate and its various committees.
“Our goal is to support ongoing, open lines of communication,” LeBlanc said.
Ernie Englander, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Strategic Management and Public Policy, served on the Faculty Senate under a previous president, when “even though we argued, we had a chance to argue.”
“There was a feeling that we were part of this school,” Englander said. “And it just doesn’t feel that way now.”